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DES MOINES - A controversial proposal to reduce the role lawyers play in nominating fellow attorneys to become judges passed the Iowa Senate on Tuesday.
The proposal would put legislative leaders - rather than attorneys - in charge of picking Iowans to serve on the Judicial Nominating Commissions that interview and recommend judicial candidates to the governor.
Senate File 237 passed on a party-line vote, with all majority Republicans supporting and all minority Democrats opposing.
Republicans gave myriad reasons for the changes, including that attorneys have too much of a role in the current process; the system does not provide sufficient accountability for nominating commission members; and it can be difficult for rural Iowans to be named to the nominating commissions.
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, pushed back at Democrats' allegations the changes are being proposed only because of recent Iowa Supreme Court decisions that struck down Republican-written laws restricting abortion and the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
But Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said his goal was to address what he and many conservatives see as a pattern of judges striking down laws without proper constitutional justification.
'The issue is judges are supposed to apply the Constitution and laws as written, and they're supposed to set aside their own personal points of view. Unfortunately, not all of them do that,” Garrett said. 'Let's go back to the time when you had judges who were judges, who did not legislate from the bench.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, criticized Republicans for making changes to the system because of their disagreement with court rulings on hot-button social issues.
'It's arrogant. It's a power grab,” Bolkcom said during debate on the bill.
'You're drunk on power,” he said. 'We see it in other bills. And all because the Iowa Supreme Court has made some decisions you don't like.”
Under the current process, citizen commissions interview and vet candidates for judicial vacancies. The commissions then generate a list of finalists to recommend to the governor, who makes an appointment from that list. The commission members are appointed - half by the governor and half by a vote of attorneys.
The proposal would remove the attorneys and give those commission appointments to legislative leaders for both the majority and minority parties.
The proposal contains a requirement that half of the commission members be attorneys.
'The problem is not lawyers on the commissions. The problem is who puts the lawyers on and who are they accountable to,” Dawson said.
The scope of the bill was reduced with an amendment that applied the biggest changes to only the state-level nominating commissions - those making recommendations for Iowa Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges.
The bill, as passed, leaves mostly intact the current process for the state's district courts.
The bill makes no changes to the merit retention process, under which Iowa voters determine whether judges remain seated on the bench.
A similar bill is advancing in the Iowa House.
Gov. Kim Reynolds indicated she'd likely sign the bill if it reaches her desk, calling it 'a step forward to creating a judicial nominating process that better reflects our state and its people.”
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